On eve of China's National Day, artist Foster Eastman urges Vancouver to pay attention to Mao Zedong
As the People’s Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 64th National Day on Tuesday (October 1), the icon of the 1949 Communist revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong, appears to be undergoing a resurgence.
New Chinese president Xi Jinping has revived Mao’s practice of public self-criticism, according to a weekend report in USA Today.
The recent show trial of former Chongqing party kingpin Bo Xilai on corruption charges echoes Mao’s ruthless purge of former Chinese president Liu Shaoqi as a capitalist roader in the Cultural Revolution.
And earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal described Xi’s visits to Mao’s lakeside villa and to a famous village, where the Communist boss launched a strike against Beijing in 1949.
“Our red nation will never change colour,” Xi reportedly declared.
As well, there have been more arrests under Xi, most notably of human-rights lawyer and scholar Xu Zhiyong for reportedly gathering crowds to disrupt public order.
This makesa Vancouver art exhibition on Mao all the more timely.
Foster Eastman, founder of Axis Hair Salon, spent two-and-a-half years preparing Mao: Contemporary Works on the Cultural Revolution, which is on display at the former Buschlen Mowatt Gallery (1445 West Georgia Street) until December 8.
Featuring two dozen storyboards, the exhibit chronicles Mao’s bloody reign from 1949 to 1976. One piece, the Book of Mao, includes 22 collages.
Many of the works highlight the most shattering events, including the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, in which intellectuals and artists were urged to come forward with their ideas, only to face ruthless repression.
“This is the moment in time that Chinese citizens—under the new People’s Republic of China, where there was so much hope—realized that they could not criticize the government," Eastman tells the Georgia Straight on a tour of the show. "And they still cannot criticize the government.”
It’s beside images of Eastman, dressed as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, dropping a bust of Mao. This refers to Ai’s famous shattering of a Han dynasty urn in 1995 on camera.
Eastman, who has never been to China, traces his fascination with Cultural Revolution artifacts to some banners he bought in an estate sale in Palm Springs several years ago. They had belonged to a widow who collected them, possibly while her husband was working in the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
“So I thought I would start doing some research and homework,” he says. “The more I read about it, the more fascinated I became about this history.”
He could imagine that if he were born in China rather than Peterborough, Ontario, he might have been recruited into the Red Guards. Those were the indoctrinated armed youths encouraged by Mao to advance the revolution.
Eastman points out that the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, created devastating schisms between children and their parents as Mao encouraged a culture of snitching with deadly consequences.
To depict the violence of this period, Eastman used explosives to detonate two busts of Mao onto canvases, which are displayed at the entrance to the show. Coincidentally, one piece resembles a red line of tanks.
There are also red-drenched albums of revolutionary operas.
“This is referencing the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution and all the terror and destruction that happened in that period of time,” Eastman says. “The first three years, ’66 to ’69, were the years of chaos, where all the schools were closed and Red Guards could travel all over China with free accommodations, free travel, free food. There was a lot of destruction.”
There are also lighter moments, including an image of Mao created from chocolate. On another wall is a framed collection of white-rabbit and red-rabbit candies popular in China. They're arranged to reveal Chinese script saying: “Chairman Mao’s thinking radiates brightly forever.” It's verse from a Chinese opera.
Also highlighted is Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which began in 1958 and led to mass starvation through bungled industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. There is also a banner referencing the expulsion of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, as well as collages demonstrating the shocking cruelty of Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Quing.
In one piece, she’s depicted with a dog’s face. This is a cheeky reference to her comment in court in 1981 that she was “Mao’s dog”. In another, her image is cut 1,000 times to represent her calls for opponents' deaths by a thousand cuts.
“She would proclaim that often with the Red Guards,” Eastman notes. “So these are mounted on pages of a 1958 almanac that was considered superstitious. All of those books would have been destroyed as well.”
One of the centrepieces is an installation of a white statue of Mao standing in front of 72 bags of blood. Eastman describes this as a “performance piece”, and each package supposedly contains one million drops. They slowly drip over Mao’s hands and fall to the floor, creating a massive red pool at his feet.
“We’re creating a monument here for all these people who died during his reign,” Eastman says. “That’s not from war. That’s from starvation, execution, overwork, and suicide. Suicide was huge during this period of time.”
The show is far from bleak. Eastman includes pieces showing the rise of Chinese youth. In his interview, he emphasizes that Mao advanced women’s rights, ended the practice of binding women's feet, and dramatically improved literacy rates in China.
But the artist also devotes significant attention to Mao’s military leader, Lin Biao, who spent a lifetime propping him up. Lin reportedly died in a plane crash just as he was about to be purged, and Mao later blamed him for trying to launch a coup.
When asked to describe Mao’s personality, Eastman responds: “I think he was a very cruel man—a psychopath, absolutely. No conscience or guilt whatsoever.”
With a smile, he quickly adds that Mao was also a genius when it came to devising strategy. “I think he would have been a brilliant chess player.”
During his research, Eastman was influenced by a scathing and detailed biography of Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, which characterized him as a conniving, tyrannical, and cruel liar who created false legends about his revolutionary exploits.
Eastman points out that there has been a reluctance in China to face up to the Cultural Revolution, which caused such immense hardship. Former leader Deng Xiaoping would minimize this by saying Mao was 70 percent positive and 30 percent negative. The dictator’s photo still hangs in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and his ruthless example is proving useful nowadays to President Xi.
Eastman insists that his exhibit is not designed to pass judgement on Mao; instead, it’s intended to educate Vancouverites about an important part of history affecting many residents of the city. And he gets rueful as he reflects on how little people know about Mao, who’s not given any prominence in local schools.
“We have so many Asians living here,” he says. “It’s time to get to know our neighbours better.”
His art makes the point that this is especially important as Canada forms closer trade ties with China. O Canada, Our Home and Native Sands references Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who recently approved a Chinese government company’s purchase of the Canadian oil company Nexen.
Since launching the show in August, Eastman has been pleased by how it stimulates conversation among visitors to the gallery. One immigrant from China asked for one piece to be taken down because he felt it was disrespectful to Mao. Another couple revealed that they each had a set of grandparents killed during Mao’s rule.
Eastman says these anecdotes make him wonder if there are tensions between immigrants from Hong Kong and from the Chinese mainland—and whether these issues need to be discussed more openly in Vancouver.
“One man was in who said many people were executed who loved Chairman Mao,” he recalls. “One guy said 'In my village, some landlords were executed, but they were the hardest working people in the village.' ”
Eastman suggests at one point that perhaps there should be a monument in Vancouver to those who perished during Mao’s era.
“Are we just going to forget about 70 to 80 million people by not talking about it?” he asks. “What happened to love, honour, trust, integrity, and respect? It almost seems like those qualities were purged, in a way.”